Thursday, February 7, 2019

Forward In All Directions

I've been thinking about direction in terms of teaching. When I was an undergrad a lot of time was spent on creating lesson plans that were very directed. "SWBAT" was the acronym that ruled the day, standing for "Students Will Be Able To..." and especially in my field of Art, we were taught to be very specific about what would happen and have very specific guidelines for how to measure and grade students. Even at the time I thought the notion of stating emphatically that students would do this or that was a little presumptuous. How did I know what exactly they would do, at best I could hope or guess. I wasn't even thinking about what students really needed to be able to do. Over the years as a general education classroom teacher as well an art teacher I've found there's fewer things that students need to do and many more things they can do.
These days I do teach specific skills, although they tend to come more from student's requests. To paint with watercolors you need a brush, paper, paint and water - that's what you need to know. "Oh, you want know how to make this kind of textured look that works well if you're trying to show a grassy field? That's called "Dry Brush", here, I'll show you how that works..." That's a typical teachable moment. Who "directed" that particular lesson? I can tell you that I don't write that sort of thing in any lesson plans, so it must have been the student. Perhaps I've changed that old phrase to "Teacher Will Be Able To Explain What is Needed In The Moment".
Another word that is used a lot in education is "Control". Teacher evaluations place a lot of emphasis on control. Is the classroom or are the students "Under Control"? There are many good reasons for paying attention to control. Out of control is almost always unsafe. So while I am always attending to control in that way I've also started thinking about the word as it applies to how the students go about their learning.
I'm perhaps most interested in controlling the class in terms of motivating them to be focused on learning, on the serious work of exploring, questioning and collecting ideas and experiences. What direction they will take with their work is of less interest to me. I would rather see a student in control of their learning experience, focused and engaged even if what they produce seems to be a random collection of ideas. A student who, in the art room, is really exploring ideas may not create a single finished, beautiful piece of art that will hang in the family's living room. They may have been going in many different directions, but the work they did can still be worthwhile assuming they were in control of the process.
I realize that I value control over direction. It's asking more of the students to develop their ability to control, their self control and accept that the direction their work takes them might not be known at the start but I think the experience is much more fruitful, both in the moment and long term.